Constructing a winning fantasy baseball squad requires landing late-round and free-agent gems while setting the right lineups and working the trade market. Before worrying about those essential steps, drafters must first nail the early rounds.
It's not as easy as it seems. Just ask anyone who selected Joey Votto, Gary Sanchez or Yu Darvish near the top last year. Even the studs combust more than fantasy players want to believe.
Every winner starts with a strong and stable foundation. How does one go about optimizing the opening rounds? Practice with as many mock drafts as possible to pinpoint a preferred draft strategy.
To get a sense of my general draft approach, let's look at a 12-team mock draft I conducted using FantasyPros' Draft Wizard. I picked against the site's consensus average draft position (ADP) using Yahoo Sports' standard roster spots for a five-by-five rotisserie league. I randomly drew the 10th pick, one of the trickiest spots to navigate in a player pool with no universal locks beyond Mike Trout and Mookie Betts.
Before diving into an ideal draft approach, here are my top-400 rankings, updated as of Monday.
Mock Draft Results
1.10: Ronald Acuna, OF, ATL
2.15: Manny Machado, SS/3B, SD
3.34: Carlos Carrasco, SP, CLE
4.39: Anthony Rendon, 3B, WAS
5.58: Lorenzo Cain, OF, MIL
6.63: Daniel Murphy, 1B/2B, COL
7.82: Zack Wheeler, SP, NYM
8.87: Nelson Cruz, DH, MIN
9.106: Matt Olson, 1B, OAK
10.111: Jose Leclerc, RP, TEX
11.130: Andrew McCutchen, OF, PHI
12.135: Yu Darvish, SP, CHC
Seek Early Stability
There are plenty of opportunities to take chances on upside. Don't do it too early, though.
The beginning rounds are not the time to make boom-or-bust gambits. Take reliable producers, and then shoot for the stars in the middle to late turns.
Ronald Acuna Jr. admittedly does not fit this advice, but let's make an exception for a 21-year-old superstar who batted .293/.366/.552 with 26 homers and 16 steals in 111 games last season. Alas, I would have celebrated if one of the bankable four-category studs (J.D. Martinez or Nolan Arenado) or Max Scherzer fell to the 10th slot.
Manny Machado, meanwhile, has compiled at least 33 homers in 156 games during each of the last four seasons. A .259 average from 2017 stands out as a clear outlier for the career .282 hitter, so he's still a stable top-15 selection despite signing with the San Diego Padres.
Instead of making a trendy pick in Vladimir Guerrero Jr., just take Anthony Rendon. He may not feel as exciting, but the Washington Nationals third baseman batted .311/.376/.550 with 23 homers in 101 games after returning from an oblique injury. Drafters would be ecstatic if the hotshot rookie delivered those numbers, so why not take the Texan's track record and established role?
Lorenzo Cain is a relatively boring fifth-round pick, but he's an effective one who has batted .300 with at least 10 homers and 25 steals in consecutive years. He should keep batting ahead of Christian Yelich atop the Milwaukee Brewers' lineup.
Daniel Murphy could win another batting title with help from Coors Field, and seriously, what does everyone have against Nelson Cruz? The designated hitter is one of the game's best bets to provide 35-40 homers for a significant discount.
A steady foundation makes it much easier to gamble on low-risk, high-reward fliers in the final rounds.
Grab an Ace
Common convention has preached against spending significant draft capital on starting pitching. It's time to revisit this mindset.
Only 32 starters worked at least 180 innings last year, and just 13 reached 200. Elite workhorses thus deserve more credit as increasingly scarce commodities.
The extra injury and performance risk has steered drafters away from pitchers in the early rounds. That seems to go hand-in-hand with the earlier point about seeking stability.
However, FanGraphs' Ariel Cohen determined that top-tier aces have returned more value than starters taken at any other point of the draft.
"The key is that the riskiness of a front-line starter is now no greater than that of a superstar hitter," he wrote. "With fewer 200 IP/200 K pitchers these days, the top pitchers are indeed superstars, and may be treated just as the hitters would."
Anyone who passes on the top-12 aces will suddenly feel compelled to reach for a second-tier upside arm (Jameson Taillon, Mike Clevinger, Jack Flaherty) or hope Stephen Strasburg or James Paxton somehow stays healthy.
Just pay market price for an ace. This doesn't mean it's imperative to snag Scherzer, Jacob deGrom or Chris Sale in the opening round. Getting the latter two in the early second, however, isn't a terrible idea. (They went ninth and 11th, respectively, in this mock.)
For those who draw an early pick, target Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in the late second or early third. From the 10th slot, I had my choice of a different pair of teammates in Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer.
Either one makes a fine staff anchor, but Carrasco offers more stability after posting a stellar ERA (3.29 and 3.38) and strikeout tally (226 and 231) in each of the last two seasons. After solidifying one headliner, wait a bit before dipping back into the waters.
Pay (A Bit) For Saves
Along with securing one top-flight starter, get at least one trustworthy closer with a definitive ninth-inning job.
Those types of relievers are also tougher to find than ever. Only 20 recorded at least 20 saves in 2018. Just 11 reached 30. In 2015, 21 players tallied 30 or more saves.
Just like with aces, this doesn't mean it's imperative to lunge for Edwin Diaz or Blake Treinen. Target the second tier of studs available near or after the top-100 picks.
In this mock, that man was Jose Leclerc. Virtually unhittable in 2018, the righty notched a 1.56 ERA with a .123 opposing batting average and 85 strikeouts in 57.2 innings. He didn't allow a run after July 25:
As a result, the Texas Rangers have named Leclerc their closer and signed him to a four-year extension. He's not too expensive for someone with the skills to make the same seismic leap to stardom as Diaz did last season.
Felipe Vazquez and Brad Hand are also superb closer targets, but both went in the eighth round of this simulation. That's a tad too steep, especially when everyone—as usual—forgot about Cruz. I often end up with Leclerc or Kirby Yates, who went the pick before I snagged Texas' ninth-inning stopper.
After grabbing one high-quality reliever, wait a bit for cheaper speculative grabs. Matt Barnes, Trevor May and Pedro Strop could each transfer elite strikeout rates to the final frame. Even guys such as Seranthony Dominguez and A.J. Minter could deliver value by snatching 10-15 saves in a committee.